Wednesday, February 3, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: 1964 Annuals


Last time we saw Dr. Doom, he’d been hurtled into deep space. But then again, he’s been hurtled into deep space before. He’s also been miniaturized and tossed off his flying headquarters, but he always manages to survive.

This time, he survives by being rescued by Pharaoh Rama-Tut, who picks up Doom in his time ship while orbiting Jupiter.

But before that, we get a detailed account of Doom’s origins, including his youth as a persecuted Gypsy, his reasons for hating Reed, the explosion that scarred his face and his eventual rise to ruler of Latvaria. (This, by the way, is the first mention we get of Latvaria. Up to now, you see, Doom’s been a secret behind-the-scenes ruler.) It’s a powerful origin story, expertly told with art and dialogue perfectly meshed together.

Anyway, Rama Tut and Doom discuss their mutual dislike of the F.F. They also theorize that—what with all the time traveling each of them has done—one of them might be the ancestor of the other. Or they might even be the same guy. They actually don’t explain themselves very well regarding all this, but time paradoxes (even theoretical ones) are inherently confusing, so we’ll forgive them.

They decide they can’t team up because one of them might cease to exist if they hang out in the same time period. Rama Tut gets Doom back to Earth, then zips off to the future. As we’ve already seen, he soon returns to the 20th Century as Kang in Avengers #8.

Doom, in the meantime, lures the FF into a trap and feeds them a mind-altering drug that causes them to hallucinate and turn against one another. I love the scene where Sue thinks she catches Reed making out with another woman. (“I believe in playing the field, Blondie,” laughs pretend-Reed.)

This all leads up to a wonderful climax—in which everything literally depends on whether Reed or Doom has the stronger intellect. All the action in this issue is tied into the personality quirks and flaws of the various characters. It’s one of the best-constructed plots that Stan and Jack ever came up with. That, plus Doom’s super-cool origin story, make this issue one of the best in the FF’s already exemplary run.


1964 is the year for great annuals. In this one, six of the webslinger’s enemies (Doc Ock, Electro, Mysterio, Kraven, Vulture and Sandman) team up to exact their revenge. First, they kidnap Betty Brant (accidentally snatching up Aunt May as well), then use her to bait a trap for Spider Man.

But poor Peter Parker—who is going through some pangs of guilt when he’s reminded of how his Uncle Ben died—has lost his powers. Regardless of this, he dons his costume to try to rescue his loved ones.

His powers return when the fighting starts. It turns out the power loss was just psycho-somatic from the guilt he was feeling.

What follows are some of Steve Ditko’s best fight scenes, as the Sinister Six (each of them wanting the credit for beating Spider Man) take on our hero one at a time. Each fight is in a different location and forces Spidey to use a variety of tactics. And Ditko gives us a magnificent full-page splash panel for each of the fights. The art work in this issue is arguable the best Ditko ever produced—wonderful visual fun from beginning to end.

The script is great as well. There’s humor drawn from J. Jonah Jamison’s desperate and unnecessary efforts to contact Spider Man and tell him about Betty’s kidnapping. (Spidey already knows.) And more humor from the fact that Aunt May never really gets that she’s been kidnapped—commenting on how well-mannered and charming Doctor Octopus is. (“We musn’t be prejudiced against him because he seems to have some sort of trouble with his arms.”) Later, she’s shocked at how vulgar and rude that Spider Man person is, beginning a long-running gag involving May’s poor opinion of the hero.

Even the scene in which the villains first get together to make plans is full of nice character moments—Vulture keeps insisting they should just gang up on Spider Man, but Kraven is too proud for that and Sandman too arrogantly confident.

Perhaps the one flaw is the absolutely shameless cameos by just about every other hero currently inhabiting the Marvel Universe—each of whom pops up for a panel or two throughout the story. (Complete with captions reminding us that they all appear in their own books.) Most of them have nothing to do with the story—they are literally just walking (or flying) past. It’s harmless enough, though. And a scene in which the Human Torch tracks down Spidey and asks if he can help is nicely done.

That’s it for the 1964 annuals. Next time, we’ll start our look at October 1964. It’s a busy month in which the FF encounters an old enemy; Spider Man and the Human Torch double-team the Green Goblin; the Torch and the Thing screw up; Dr. Strange runs away from Baron Mordo; Thor and Iron Man each borrow villains from other heroes’ Rogue’s Galleries; Giant Man fights a Commie, um, gorilla?; Hulk battles a giant robot; the Avengers meet a villain (or is he?) named Wonder Man; and Daredevil fights a bad guy with a dumb name.

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